Honest, powerful and tender, Tighten Our Belts is a show about the cost of austerity for people in Brighton and Hove created by Brighton People’s Theatre - a brand new theatre company comprised of non-professional actors working in collaboration with professional theatre-makers. Director Naomi Alexander talks to us about the origins and philosophy of the company and why this is such an important story to tell
Can you tell us about the origins of Brighton’s People Theatre? How did it start and what gave you the idea?
The company has its origins in a sense of frustration with how irrelevant a lot of theatre can be to most people’s lives. The 2015 Warwick Commission into Cultural Value found that the wealthiest, better educated and least ethnically diverse 8% of the population forms the most culturally active, benefiting disproportionately from public subsidy. I wanted to do something to try and change that.
I came across the idea of the ‘figure of 8’ relationship between a theatre and its local communities. This is how Stella Duffy, one of the inspiring leaders of the Fun Palace movement, explained the approach to me: “The theatre has to go out into the community, know the people, know its community, feed that back into the work they make, and then you change the work you make because of the people. And therefore the people want to come and see it, because you’re not putting it on for their good, you’re putting it on for them because it’s got them in it. Then that feeds the people because the people have seen something amazing and then it keeps doing this figure of 8.”
One of the things I like about this approach is that it is ongoing and reciprocal. By engaging in this way with communities, theatres can have a positive impact on peoples’ lives, and communities can positively impact on theatres. This is what we want to try with Brighton People’s Theatre.
What is the philosophy of the company in a nutshell? What are your ambitions for it long-term?
The philosophy of the company is a belief in, as Joan Littlewood put it, “the genius in everyone”. We believe that everyone is creative but that not everyone has opportunities to enable them to realize what they might be capable of. We want artists to collaborate long term with people who might like the idea of being in a show but never have tried it.
Then we want to take shows where people feel comfortable and might take the chance on trying something new. So we’re planning on taking shows to community centres and other venues across the city and selling tickets on a Pay What You Decide basis. This is important because there needs to be no financial risk for people. So people can book a ticket for nothing, watch the show and then pay what they decide the experience is worth afterwards.
Long term, we want to work with people from lots of different communities from across the city in order to build a diverse company of hundreds of people. We want to invite Danny Boyle to direct a huge show at the Amex stadium. If people are up for it, we’d like to embed making and watching theatre as something that happens in communities, as a way for people to come together to have a good night out and figure out a little bit what it means to be human.
What kinds of people have been involved in the project to date? How do you encourage people to get involved?
So far we’ve attracted people through the partnerships that we put in place for our first show. So people found out about it through the Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project and Brighton Dome. It’s a diverse group of people from across the city that came together because they wanted to say something about austerity.
What are the challenges of working with non-professional actors? How do you support them to ensure the best performances?
It’s fantastic working with non-professional performers. What is noticeable is their commitment and enthusiasm for the work. We bring in really high quality professional artists to elicit their ideas and help to shape and refine them. Then it’s just a question of hard graft and lots of rehearsals to ensure that people feel comfortable and confident on stage.
Can you tell us a bit more about Tighten Our Belts specifically and what audiences can expect to see?
Audiences can expect an honest, tender and powerful exploration of the cost of austerity to the city. There is singing, movement and stories grounded in the reality of what’s going on right now.
How was it devised?
I’ve been working with the group for a year now. We started out talking about the impact of austerity in the city. There is so much going on, one of the hardest parts of the process has been choosing what to include in the show, as we just can’t cover everything. Then we’ve taken the group to see shows on at the Dome for inspiration, created fictional characters and infused the stories with the daily struggles that are going on for people across the city. We’ve invited artists in like Gary Clarke and Kirsty Martin who are highly skilled at eliciting ideas and then working with people to shape and refine it. And I’ve been working with dramaturg Lou Cope to ensure the whole thing works as a piece of theatre, that we take the audience on a journey that we hope will deeply affect them.
Why do you think Tighten Our Belts is an important story to tell? How do you ensure that it presents an authentic picture?
I think it’s important because people are suffering, right here, right now, all around us. You can’t fail to notice the increase in homeless people on our streets in recent years, but what you don’t see are the struggles that people are going through behind closed doors. People having to choose between putting the heating on or feeding their family. People feeling that somehow they have done something wrong, or that they somehow deserve this. People with no sense of hope for the future. People feeling a loss of dignity. Is this the society we want to live in? I know it isn’t for me.
We’re working really hard to try and ensure that the picture painted by the show is authentic. We’ve talked to a lot of people across the city and listened carefully to the way in which austerity is affecting them. And ultimately because we have non-professional performers in the show, I hope that they will convey an authentic Brighton-ness which is captured in who they are.
Were there any specific stories that came out of your research into the impact of austerity that shocked or surprised you?
Lots. It’s been a real eye-opener and I know that the research process has politicized everyone involved to some degree. It has been shocking to see the impact of austerity on people who have stepped in to help those in need. We spent some time at one of the 15 food banks now operating in the city during our research for the show. We were struck by the dedication of the volunteers who work from 6am-10pm most days collecting and organizing food. But their dedication comes at a personal cost to them. It makes you question what the role of the state is in ensuring that there is a safety net so the most vulnerable are not forgotten. Wasn’t this why the welfare state was created after the Second World War?
What was the reaction to the sharing (at Brighton Dome last year)? Were you surprised by the response?
The reaction to the sharing in February of some work in progress was astonishing. People were very moved by what they saw and the feedback was largely positive about the creative decisions that we had made. I was surprised that the reaction was so positive as we are a new company, creating our first show with a group of non-professional performers, most of whom had never set foot on stage before that performance. It was a big risk. I think it paid off because there is an emotional truth to what we are conveying that struck a chord with people.
Austerity in all it’s guises is hitting the city NOW with a ferocity that is only just beginning to be felt according to people we have interviewed. They are clear that things are going to get worse over the coming years as the cuts continue to hit key services. But to the best of my knowledge Tighten Our Belts is the first cultural response to this re-shaping of the way we treat the most vulnerable in our city. Clearly people want to see a show about it. Our preview performance at the Dome Studio sold out two months before the show, without many of the cast and crew (myself included) having even got tickets for their family and friends.
Tighten Your Belts is on Sat 26 Nov, 7.30pm. This is a preview performance before the show goes on tour in 2017 and is open to the public on a pay what you decide basis. For more info and to book tickets head this way.